Smile less, disagree more

Article by
Aaron Power

Why we're so scared of conflict and what to do about it

It’s stiflingly hot in the cramped meeting room. You’d rather be anywhere but here, but this topic is important, and can’t be skipped. For weeks you’ve been looking at competitors, modelling finances, and evaluating the team’s sentiment to introduce a wellness budget. 

A wellness budget would encourage the team to invest in their health, promote higher performance, and increase morale. It would tell everyone that this organisation is progressive and cares for its employees. 

You’ve done your presentation, answered some straightforward questions but you can feel a pair of cynical eyes lock onto yours … here we go. 

Conflict is good 

Conflict leads to more meaningful discussions, richer insights, and validates our values and decisions. Yet we often shy away from it. Saying “No” feels uncollaborative and butting against consensus can be isolating. The fear of social fallout outweighs the benefit of sitting in awareness and expressing what we truly think. In some cases, these feelings are a result of a: 

  • Toxic or insecure culture; 
  • Power Imbalance; 
  • Lack of confidence or experience. 

As Kiwis, we are happy to push back on America's nuclear arsenal. But feel uneasy about telling a peer their proposal needs work. Oh the irony. A quick stress-free agreement can be a cheap way to find solace, when in truth sometimes you have to earn that feeling through disagreement. So the question is:

Why do we fear conflict and what can we do about it”? 

Although not extensive, this article captures some of my key lessons as a Consultant at Redvespa, and I hope they ring some truths for you too. 

Separating yourself from your work  

Often our ideas feel like an extension of ourselves. It can be easy to be overly protective of them because we’ve been taught from an early age that our ideas are special. Great people have great ideas and we want to be great. That’s one of the underlying reasons why we hate conflict because disagreement feels personal. As a consultant I often receive daily critique of my work. I have poured myself into every detail but things can always be better. Sometimes you feel like pushing back until you realise: 

“I’m being given the opportunity to leverage someone else's knowledge, experience, and creativity. If I block their input I risk missing out. To make the most of this opportunity I need to encourage this person to speak their mind by separating myself from my work”. 

When conflict is approached in this way it feels like a meeting of minds. Egos are softened in favour of opening ourselves up to something new. This approach doesn’t mean you immediately accept input, instead it creates a space for people to share.  Sometimes it’s hard to be polite. In return you either validate your thinking or develop it further. You stand to gain either way and the other person feels heard and appreciated. Remove the emotion by making this discussion not about you. 

Maintaining the right to say no

Saying “No” is always an option. Forcing a yes is just that – it’s forced.  We’ve been taught to think of these terms as strictly positive and negative. But that simply isn’t true. You must always create a space where anyone can disagree. It gives individuals psychological safety and you have the opportunity to understand their deep-set convictions and objections. In some cases it can be tactical to deliberately force a “No” so you can signal that making a stand is welcomed and you can be stanuch in your beliefs. Don’t hear a “No” as negative instead see it as an opportunity to learn through empathy. You have to earn a “Yes” through a “No”. 

Disagreement is an agreement 

The final principle to consider is an old rhetoric; you can agree to disagree. This positioning gives you an alternative resolution to agreement. It says that despite thoroughly exploring the topic both parties aren't aligned and that’s ok. Agreeing to disagree gives you the opportunity to stop going round in circles and work around the impasse by elevating the conversation to someone with greater responsibility. It’s an old judo throw that can be used, after thorough deliberation, to make yourself clear without undermining your integrity. It’s ok to disagree and ask for extra help. 

Conflict is a tool, not an obstacle

So we’ve landed on the realisation that disagreement is valuable and can improve our rapport, empathy, and thinking. The main blocker to this value is social pressure and the fear of a messy fallout. But we can overcome these concerns by: 

  1. Separating ourselves from our work 
  2. Maintaining the right to say “No” (and in some cases inviting it)
  3. After thorough deliberation you can always agree to disagree and elevate the decision to someone with higher responsibility 

Over the coming days and weeks I’d encourage you to expand your comfort with conflict and reflect on your own experiences and feelings toward it. There is no better technique to learn than the ones you steal and adapt for yourself. 

Not satisfied? Well good news; we have plenty of other articles to hone what makes you special. You’ll find practical guides, interesting stories, and plenty of calls to action. 

Photo by Frank Busch on Unsplash

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